Merck's experimental COVID-19 treatment pill
Merck's experimental COVID-19 treatment pill Merck & Co Inc/Handout via REUTERS

A panel of US health advisers on Tuesday narrowly backed authorization of Merck’s experimental drug to treat COVID-19, known as molnupiravir.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel voted 13-10 that the drug’s benefits outweigh its risks, including potential birth defects if used during pregnancy, according to The Associated Press.

The group’s recommendation came after hours of debate about the drug's modest benefits and potential safety issues. Experts backing the treatment stressed it should not be used by pregnant women and called on FDA to recommend extra precautions, including pregnancy tests for women before using the drug.

The group's vote specifically backed the drug for adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who face the greatest risks, including those with conditions like obesity, asthma and old age.

A study released in October found that the Merck poll cuts the risk of hospitalization or death from the illness in half.

In early November, Britain became the first country to officially authorize molnupiravir to treat coronavirus symptoms.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid called the pill a "gamechanger" for patients with compromised immune systems.

Israel has expressed interest in purchasing the experimental drug.

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